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Missing Person in Montparnasse:
The Case of Jeanne Hebuterne


Jeanne Hebuterne in one of the dresses
she designed for herself

An elusive figure inhabits the sundrenched rooms of Modigliani's Montparnasse studio in Rue de la Grande Chaumiere. She sits quietly in a corner, sketching, paces the corridor with a heavy step, waits at the window, looking down at skeletal trees in an empty courtyard. From Modigliani's many portraits of her, we recognize the otherworldly gaze, the coppery hair coiled like a geisha's, the unflattering hint of double chin. It is Jeanne Hebuterne, Modigliani's last mistress, only friend, and the mother of his daughter, Jeanne Modigliani.

Until October 2000, when her artwork was featured in a major Modigliani exhibition in Venice at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, not much was known about Jeanne Hebuterne, except for the tragic story of her suicide in 1920. She was a promising young artist, fourteen years Modigliani's junior. Much too early in their love affair, Jeanne became pregnant with their first child. She was approaching the end of her second pregnancy when, destitute, abandoned by all but Jeanne, Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis on January 24, 1920. Unable to face life without him, she walked backwards out a Paris window twenty-four hours later, and at the age of twenty-one, exited a world she had but little known.

In the years that followed, Jeanne Hebuterne's papers were scattered, her artworks and possessions secretly guarded by her brother, Andre Hebuterne. Surviving family members and friends would not collaborate with biographers and scholars who later attempted to piece together the facts of Jeanne's relationship with Modigliani and to define her place in Montparnasse.

In 1984, Jeanne's daughter, Jeanne Modigliani, entrusted to the French art critic, Christian Parisot, previously unknown materials documenting
Modigliani's relationship with Jeanne Hebuterne and Hebuterne's activities as an artist. She posed one condition concerning future publication. The true story of Jeanne Hebuterne was to be kept secret until the year 2000. In October 2000, the last veil was lifted when sixty drawings and a half-dozen paintings by this heretofore unknown artist were viewed for the first time at the Modigliani exhibition in Venice...

The essay from which this excerpt was taken
first appeared in the Summer 2003
issue of The Literary Review and was nominated
for a Pushcart Prize